Thursday, May 31, 2018

A Praying Life

I'm wrapping up my 3-week trip to the US for my brother's wedding. This trip has been mostly wonderful and a tiny bit terrible. It's been chock-full of quality time with people I love: immediate family, relatives, the kids I nannied, my church family, friends who feel like family. I've enjoyed cooler temperatures, tasty foods, and a break from language study.

With the kids I nannied - they're still close to my parents

The main problem with this trip is that I've let my relationship with God suffer. I knew this trip would be full of emotions: attending my third sibling wedding as the still-single oldest child, knowing my time with the kids I used to nanny is temporary, cramming in conversations that are too tough for Skype, wanting to be there for my family but not always knowing how. I found out while here that several friends are experiencing significant changes or challenges in their lives. 
Visiting the US always hurts because it reminds me how much I love and miss people here. And when I return to Cambodia, my old routine will be gone: I'll have two months of language immersion in a small town with people I don't know well, and then a lot of unknowns in my schedule once I get back to Phnom Penh. I don't want to be overdramatic - the reunions have been joyful and less bittersweet than I'd expected. Things have gone great for me lately in Cambodia, and I'd be crushed if I couldn't go back. Still, my feelings have been complex.

With a dear friend from college

I knew that I'd need to stay grounded in truth to navigate those emotions, and also that I'm not the best at making time for Bible reading and prayer when my schedule is in flux. Clearly I still need to grow in this area! When I embrace being busy and enjoying "people time" to the exclusion of time alone with God, the inner turmoil that hums in the background and then boils over once I'm finally alone is anything but surprising.

My dad, niece, and nephews

One thing that's helped re-ground me is the book A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World, by Paul Miller. My Bible study read the whole thing this spring, but I wasn't usually able to attend because meetings conflicted with my Khmer language classes, so I didn't try to keep up. I've read several more chapters over the past few weeks.

I wasn't that excited last winter when the group picked this book. I don't need to read more about prayer... I just need to do it more! But I've found it informative, inspiring and refreshing. 

One image in the book brought back a lesson I've repeatedly encountered:

The image shows a timeline from conversion to spiritual maturity. As a young believer, I feel only a small need to pray, as I can see only a fraction of God's holiness and my own sin. As my spiritual life matures, I see more clearly how great my need is for God and how great his grace is in my life. Thus, I realize more and more my tremendous need for prayer. 

I remember arriving in Cambodia in 2009 and trying to plan a lesson with my co-teacher in a remedial writing class. 

"What should we do on day one?" I asked her. 

"I don't know, let's pray about it." 

"Pray?!" I was convinced she was overspiritualizing it. She wasn't. She needed to pray and she knew it.

Years later, someone at my church in Cambodia told us, "In my 10+ years here, the greatest lesson I've learned is how much I need God." He had advanced degrees, impressive accomplishments, strong faith, and great relationships as a husband and father. I thought he was being too humble. He wasn't. He needed God and he knew it.

So when I come back to God, having ignored Him all day (or longer) and gotten myself into a tizzy, it seems obvious why I'm feeling agitated. It's not because my circumstances are that bad; it's because I've been dumb enough to try toughing it out alone. I need prayer, I need God, and I know it. Even when I don't apply it. 

One helpful reminder from this book for those overcrammed days is breath prayers: "Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner," or even just, "Help, Lord!" or "Thank you." These have helped prevent a downward thought spiral on several recent occasions, just acknowledging His presence and His care for me.

This illustration has also sparked a lot of reflection. Miller looks at Jesus' prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane and how it avoids two dangers that believers face when praying. The more common "cliff" we fall off is not asking God for what we want. Instead, we try to get it through our own efforts, resulting in isolation from God. Cynicism can also hinder us from asking, as Miller points out. Jesus' solution is to ask boldly. Even in facing the cross, which he knew was necessary to offer salvation to all people, he honestly confessed to the Father that he didn't want to endure it. "Please take this cup from me." 

The other "cliff" we can fall off is asking selfishly, resulting in putting ourselves above God and trying to boss him around. The antidote is to surrender completely. In the garden, Jesus went on to pray, "Yet not what I will, but what you will." If we try to surrender before we have asked boldly and honestly, we present a fake self to God and can't fully connect with Him. But if we ask boldly and then surrender completely, it brings us into deeper communion with God, into a dialogue where He can address not only our situation, but also the thoughts and emotions driving our requests.

I thought that I was pretty good about asking God for what I wanted, but I realized I tend to give up easily. My heart is more cynical than I'd have admitted before reading A Praying Life. This picture and Miller's broader challenge have moved me to sit with God and struggle with Him through what's on my mind, even if it's a topic we've discussed before. I'm often reluctant to take that time and face the junk, knowing He might reveal my selfishness in my request and reframe the issue. But whenever I do, it's a relief to sort through it with Him. Remembering who He is and what He has done is powerful. This book has helped me ask sooner when issues arise. It's also challenged me to pray for change - in myself, others, and society - in a few areas I hadn't really considered praying about before.

Here's a passage I needed this past week:

"What do I lose when I have a praying life? Control. Independence. What do I gain? Friendship with God. A quiet heart. The living work of God in the hearts of those I love. The ability to roll back the tide of evil. Essentially, I lose my kingdom and get his. I move from being an independent player to a dependent lover. I move from being an orphan to a child of God." (125-126)

I dearly love my illusions of control and independence. But if Jesus couldn't make it through the day without his Father, who am I to think that I could? More than that, why would I want to? Prayer opens my heart to see a deeper reality and enables me to tap into the same boundless power that resurrected Christ from the dead. It knocks off my homemade crown and reminds me who the true King is.

I'm still sometimes guilty of reading about prayer more than I actually pray. And I'm very frequently guilty of a small view of my need for God. But He is changing me, and I'm praying that His work in me will continue.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Common ground

As a teenager, when I first decided I wanted to move overseas, I thought choosing a host country would be a very rational decision, the result of researching multiple locations and evaluating where the needs and conditions were a good fit for me. For example, I thought I might want a host country with:
1. Mountains
2. Real winter
3. Some French speakers
4. Desperate need of a hero (me)

So basically Vermont, but with more starving children and terrorism.

As a child, I thought this scenery was normal

That's not really how it went. Once I heard about Cambodia a couple years later, I was too smitten to strongly consider anywhere else.
Even though I knew nothing about Buddhism.
Even though I'd never gotten excited about Asian food or palm trees.
Even though I hated the humidity when I left Vermont for Pennsylvania at age 12.

I've since learned to love Buddhists, Asian food, and palm trees, though humidity and my hair are still not great friends. But for years, I've still had a hard time articulating why I keep choosing Cambodia. Usually it sounds something like this: "My community is great, I've grown a lot in living here, and there are tons of opportunities to serve and do what I love." Sometimes I also mention the political stability or the fact that there's minimal animosity toward Americans. And mangoes (duh).

However, there are more factors that have made Cambodia an easier adjustment for me than some other locations. These factors probably wouldn't have made it into my mental criteria, had I stuck to my original plan to create some kind of global spreadsheet. But they matter. Through conversations the past few months with friends who have lived abroad elsewhere, I've become more aware of how grateful I am... not just for the people or the opportunities... but for Cambodia itself. Here are a few examples.

It starts with the fairly obvious...

1. Driving on the right... well, most of the time, anyway. In this way, Cambodia contrasts its neighbors Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand, as well as other former British colonies like Kenya and Australia.

2. Cheap, tasty produce. This is apparently not the case on islands like Samoa and Haiti, or wintry, mountainous countries like Tajikistan. (A point my teenage self definitely failed to consider.)

3. Good Internet. Someone told me when she came from Uganda to Cambodia in 2012-13, she was shocked how much more readily available it was, even in the provinces. Even when I arrived in 2009 it wasn't awful, and for years it's been great, at least here in Phnom Penh.

4. Availability of American products. Probably 20+ stores in this city of one million sell peanut butter, making it far easier to find than when I was in France or Germany. At least as many sell spaghetti, milk, and bread. Some goods come and go, like decent chocolate chips or Clif bars, and others have less selection than in the US or are pricier. (Think $4 refried beans, $5 cream cheese, and $14/kg for cheese.) But in general, it's quite an impressive selection compared to many or most countries.

5. Smiling is a good thing. Contrast that with France, where Americans are seen as superficial because they smile too much. I tend to smile when I'm nervous or want people to feel comfortable around me, which fits well with Cambodian practices but not so much with French ones. Deciphering the meaning of a Cambodian smile has taken longer, but at least I know that when in doubt, I should smile.

A few of my favorite smiles

It continues through things I grew to value:

6. A relaxed dress code. This culture is too conservative for part of my wardrobe, but not much of it. I can dress appropriately for here while feeling like "myself." Not quite like in Saudi Arabia, where even foreign women have to wear an abayah in public! I'm also glad there's not much pressure to wear name brands or dress up all the time... Phnom Penh is becoming more stylish, but it's a city full of hicks, so in that way I fit right in.

Usually I get to wear more jump-friendly apparel than this

7. Minimal sexual harassment. I've probably missed a few cheeky comments because of my limited language, but usually the most daring a guy ever gets is yelling "hello" and trying to catch my eye as we pass on the street... and even that's fairly rare. A far cry from the stories I've heard about Egypt and India! The creepiest conversation I've had with a guy here was when my moto repair guy once invited me (but not his wife) to go party with him and other guys... and even that was just annoying, not unnerving.

8. On a related note, women's status. It's common for women to work outside the home and go places unaccompanied. Not that women's rights are perfect here, but as a foreign women here I enjoy the same freedom I would in the US.

Several of these friends volunteered to help make the meal we enjoyed together

9. Reasonable expectations for hosts. I still get nervous hosting Cambodians and I've had my share of faux pas. But talking recently with someone in Afghanistan made me realize how good I have it. There, it's rude to leave your guests unaccompanied for even a moment, but they can't sit in the kitchen or help in any way while you prepare or serve the food. So it's nearly impossible to host alone. You also need to keep their plates filled at all times, among many other expectations. The bar is lower here for sure!

10. Religious freedom. Not just for me as a Christian, but also for other minority religions. That hasn't always been the case - the Khmer Rouge actively targeted religious leaders of all stripes for execution. But for 25+ years, the government has protected religious liberties. The fact that my NGO can openly proclaim its Christian identity in a country where people commonly say "To be Cambodian is to be Buddhist" is pretty remarkable. I also appreciate that people are allowed to convert - I have many Christian friends here who were born to Buddhist families.

I recently got to attend this church service in a small town... such infectious enthusiasm!

It's easy to dwell on the differences between the US and Cambodia, which are many and can be challenging. Sometimes I feel like the cultural gap is as wide as the geographical distance, literally the other side of the world. But the common ground I've found has significantly reduced my stress and helped me thrive here. These benefits are not to be ignored.

A note to my teenage self: While Cambodia's imitation of winter is pretty weak, it does have some mountains and French, if you know where to look. And it's OK to forego the terrorism. ;)

Saturday, March 31, 2018

No, I'm still not working - and here's why

Every week for the past six months or so, I've picked a morning to walk down the stairs, out the gate, and just a bit up the street to buy baw baw (rice porridge) from my neighbor. Unlike many customers who order it to-go, I sit unhurried in one of her red plastic chairs and eat my breakfast on her shiny metal folding table. And so there's time nearly every week for her to ask the question, "Are you going to work today?" 

Not just rice and water - this steaming hot baw baw comes with fish/chicken and bean sprouts, and I can add lime juice, pepper, hot chilies, and deep-fried pastries. Not bad for 62 cents!

The best is when her super-extroverted granddaughter is visiting

The answer is always no, I'm just studying Khmer for now, but I get why she keeps asking. It's confusing! Why am I, a grown single woman living away from my parents, not going out every day and earning my keep? She's been placated some to hear that I'm employed by an organization that's paying me to study right now, so that I'll be able to do my job down the road. I've told her, too, that I like coming and hanging out at her baw baw stand so that I can practice speaking and listening with native Khmer speakers. 

But if I were to tell her the truth - that sitting at this shiny metal table and chatting with her is literally part of my "job" right now - I think she'd need my help to pick her jaw off the floor. Wait till I tell her I'm graduating language school this week and I'll *still* be a full-time student. (Actually, she might never know - yesterday she told me she was moving away that day to take a new job due to a family health crisis! I'm going to miss her and her other baw baw customers.)

The truth is, I can't just learn language flipping through flash cards in my kitchen. Vocab and grammar are just a tiny part of learning a language. As we learned in my "Continuing Language" seminar this weekend, you also need...
  • sociolinguistic competence (using language appropriately considering the context, listeners, etc.)
  • strategic competence (finding ways to convey your meaning despite obstacles like limited vocab or a noisy room), and 
  • discourse competence (knowing how a news article, conversation, short story, etc. connects phrases and sentences to create a larger meaning). 
I'll need to keep growing in these areas for years to come - learning a language is a lifelong process. And it takes intentionality. Language school graduates tend to be "intermediate" at first - nowhere near fully proficient and able to do their whole lives well in the new language - but actually regress over the years that follow, except in their vocab. That's why this seminar aimed to give my classmates and me the tools we need to keep honing our skills outside of a formal classroom setting. That's also why my organization is giving me a few more months to keep growing before I start work. Several of my teammates have told me, "When I finished language school, that's when I really started learning Khmer."

It's impossible to learn much language in isolation from culture. One way I've gotten to combine the two is by tagging along on home visits by community workers at three local nonprofit schools for children from low-income families. Since I hope my work will benefit students like these, I've loved glimpsing the students' context beyond the classroom. 

There's a lot to learn from each conversation between the community worker and a family, and the seminar gave me even more ideas on what to listen for. For example, what does small talk look like in this community? How do you transition from that to the purpose for the visit, and then signal it's time to wrap up? It's neat to see how each worker builds rapport with the family before bringing up the task at hand, which is often a student's chronic absence, but sometimes other topics like good news about their progress. We're able to sit with some parents and families probably 20 minutes, surprisingly long for this time-oriented American, before it's time to go. 

Photo credit: Mindy Kozloff

Across from one school, this lady was picking lotus flowers to sell at the local pagoda: 60 flowers for $5. Many families here make their living that way, and some can also get higher prices by taking them a few miles down the road to downtown Phnom Penh. She said there are lots of leeches - eek! Her long pants guard against them, but we met another lady that day with leech bites and scars all over her legs. 

The school, like this whole community, has no running water. It collects rainwater in these huge containers (left) and buys water by the truckload in dry season. Rainy season had just ended when I visited last November, but the water was already gone. Apparently everyone at the school says rainwater is more delicious than truck water.

This student in the second community was happy to show off his puppies. They were so cute! He had a smart idea for helping them thrive: keep them under a mosquito net so the bugs stay away. Since his house is on stilts, pretty soon he'll need a new plan for keeping them from falling down the ladder... one ventured awfully close to it before he grabbed it and carried it back to safety.

About half the students in this community are ethnic Vietnamese, meaning their families don't have Cambodian citizenship or the right to own land. Many of them still live on houseboats and earn their living by fishing, like when they first emigrated here nearly 40 years ago. I'm not sure where they park their motos, but it must be on land, because there's no way this bridge is for anything but pedestrians! I feel for the parents of small children, trying to get them back and forth daily. 

While the footbridge was pretty rustic, the houseboat we visited seemed sturdy and spotless. The owner was the only one of all the families we visited to offer me a drink. And I hadn't expected to find a well-tended hanging garden in the home of someone I considered poverty-stricken and oppressed as an ethnic minority. It reminded me of Chimamanda Adichie's TED talk on the dangers of a single story. I'd been reducing our hostess to the caricature of "victim of Southeast Asian politics" or "mother of an underachieving student," rather than seeing her as a whole person who's ahead of me in her gardening and cleaning (and I'm sure many other skills). I still have a lot of layers of pride and ignorance that God needs to strip away if I want to truly serve families like hers.

Walking back to the school, we spotted another skill I lack: gutting fish using a metal roller. I'm guessing they were going to dry and sell these fish. It seems to be an all-ages activity; I know this community has many kids dropping out to help on the fishing boats as well. But these young girls are in their school uniforms, so they're just helping in their off hours. They laughed at me for wanting a video, but I was mesmerized watching them.

The third school is just a couple miles from my house, and one of the families we visited is less than a mile from me. They even sell corn at the market a block from my house. But it felt like I was entering another world as I stepped into the cluster of shacks across from the vats of boiling water. Geese were waddling around squawking, and you'd never dream that we were two blocks from a major road whose traffic jam had made me late that morning. 

At that house, the mom had good news and bad news for the community worker. The bad news: her second daughter is still under the weather, hence the recent absences. (A much better reason than another mom's "Oh, I think he's out flying kites with his brother.") The good news: they were finally able to get a family record book. This government document allows their family, among other things, to register the kids in public school... something that should have happened years ago but somehow didn't. It sounds like the oldest child has special needs, so maybe public school wasn't a good option as it offers no special services.

At two of the schools, I got to stay and enjoy lunch with the teachers. While picking up some iced coffees from the market with two of them, I spotted this gem of a T-shirt. (8+ years in, I'm still not tired of Engrish and nonsense messages on Cambodian clothing.) 

I'm hoping these visits and other community interactions will help me build bridges, not burn them. But... for the innumerable times that I mess up... this shirt is a good reminder to laugh at myself, see the light in the fires of humiliation, and move on.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Disney for scribbles

Picture a little girl who gives her dad a drawing. “Do you like it?” she asks sweetly. “I spent forever on it.”

“Oh, I love it, honey! Let’s hang it up right here.”

"Is it good?

"It's wonderful!"

Her voice takes on a triumphant tone. “Well then, what will you give me for it?”


“I’m giving up this wonderful picture that belongs to me. It’s a big sacrifice. What will you give me for it?”

The dad thinks, Hmm. Besides the snacks I fed you as you drew? Besides the clothes you’re wearing? Besides the paper and crayons you used for your drawing? Besides the house on whose walls we’re hanging it? Besides my love and support since before you were even born? You really believe you can put me in your debt?

He kneels to look her in the eye. “A trip to Disney World, sweetie. Let’s go to Disney.”


Last night in Bible study, we discussed Matthew 19. Jesus urges the rich young ruler to gain heavenly treasure by selling all his possessions and following Jesus. As the young man walks away gloomily, Peter asks Jesus, “We’ve left everything to follow You… what will we get for it?”

Yup, Peter, you left behind your fishing nets. Your ragged, smelly fishing nets. What a sacrifice. And your big mouth has been such a great help so far.

But Jesus doesn’t mock him or cut him down to size. Instead, he replies with promises:

You get a throne in my kingdom.

You get a hundred times what you left behind – houses, family, lands.

You get eternal life.

This passage reveals two big truths: Those who belong to Jesus don’t get to hold anything back... and we will NEVER get ripped off when we give Him our all. 

The past couple months, God’s been revealing all my expectations for life in Cambodia. I left behind so much in America – don’t You owe me great ministry, relationships, health, etc?

He doesn’t. He doesn’t owe me a thing. And yet what He’s guaranteed me is so. much. better. than anything I could ever give up here. I can freely give Him my time and energy, knowing He’ll treasure my tiny gifts like that tender-hearted dad, and that just as He always has, He’ll continue to multiply them and overwhelm me with blessings.

And that’s why today, I’ve enjoyed total joy and peace all day long, just basking in that knowledge…

Oh wait, false. I was actually cranky and irritable for large chunks of today. I fell for some really old lies about what I need and whether I can trust God to provide for me. I sensed Him prompting me to come and talk with Him about it, and I resisted for hours because I didn’t think I could spare the time. Who was it that pointed out the irony in us not making time for the Maker of time?

I’m glad that even when I ignore them, His promises hold true.

I’m glad that He treasures our paltry sacrifices, even though all we have and give comes from Him. 

I’m glad that He’s patient when I keep demanding assurances He's already provided. 

Like the dad who promises Disney in return for some crayon scribbles on a page, God’s lavish generosity seems foolish and wasted on ungrateful, distracted, demanding me. But one thing's for sure: Anything I can give back to Him is anything but a foolish waste. 

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

YOMO - You only marry once

It almost feels like I'm back in grad school. I'm in my second to last five-week module at Gateway to Khmer (G2K), and the last two modules have big culminating projects where we interview a bunch of Cambodians. So for the past week, I've been transcribing data from nine different recorded interviews and starting to organize it into themes.

G2K's classes are all pass/fail, so it's nothing like the rigor of qualitative analysis for my Lehigh thesis. But it's still been a stretch as I try to decipher rapidly spoken words and remember them long enough to type them up. Rewind. Replay. Repeat.  

Each of my eight classmates and I have a different speech act to research, such as comforting someone, correcting a misunderstanding, or warning someone. My topic is persuasion. Before interviewing, I created three scenarios requiring persuasion:

1. You and a friend, Chenda, are invited to your mutual friend Neary's wedding. You don't know many other guests, so you want Chenda to go with you. But s/he's not convinced s/he wants to attend. How would you persuade him or her to join you? (The name "Chenda" can be used for either gender, so I assigned Chenda the gender of the person I was interviewing.)

2. Your younger brother has a long-time friend named Kosal. But lately Kosal has been getting drunk, doing drugs, and sometimes stealing money. He always wants your brother to join him for these activities. How would you persuade your brother to stop hanging out with Kosal?

3. Your boss just announced that your company is hiring. Your sibling is interested in applying, and you think s/he would be a great fit there. How would you persuade your boss to consider hiring your sibling?

For each scenario, I asked these questions:
a. What would you say? 
b. What would you do? (ex. body language, tone of voice, actions)
c. What would not be OK for you to say or do? 
d. How might your approach change according to the listener's age, gender, and social status? (For example, in scenario 2, what if you were persuading your younger sister or an older sibling? Does it matter if your boss is male or female?)

I interviewed 4 males and 5 females, ages 22 to 64,
with various jobs and education levels

All three scenarios have yielded intriguing responses, but the topic that inspired the most reflection for me is the first one, about Neary's wedding. A G2K teacher helped me create a role play that we'll perform in my presentation next week. Most of the "me" lines are direct quotes taken from interviews. 

Part of my role play - I need to finish typing it in Khmer

Here's a rough English translation:

Me: Hey Chenda! Did you get an invitation to Neary’s wedding?
Chenda: Yeah, I did.
Me: Are you going?
Chenda: I’m not sure.
Me: Why not?
Chenda: Money’s kind of tight right now.
Me: C’mon, you should go! You can always earn more money, but you can’t earn back your reputation. Neary’s been our close friend for a long time. If she invited us, she’s counting on us to show up. We need to make time to go encourage her and show her we love her. She’s only going to get married once in her life.
Chenda: It’s just so hard!
Me: If you don’t go, I won’t have anyone to go with, so I’ll have to go by myself. And you won’t be able to look Neary in the eye again. Don’t just throw away her friendship like that. Don’t you want her to come to your wedding someday? Don’t let her down.
Chenda: But I can’t afford to buy a new dress and get my hair and makeup done.
Me: You can borrow a dress and shoes from me - no need to buy them new. And I’ll do your hair and makeup.
Chenda: How are you getting there?
Me: On a tuk-tuk.
Chenda: Then could I go with you? I need a ride.
Me: Sure! It’s better riding with two people than all by myself, because it will be safer coming back at night.
Chenda: But my house is far away on a dark, quiet road. I’m afraid it won’t be safe going home.
Me: If you’re worried about that, just spend the night at my house. It’s on a busier road close to the wedding.
Chenda: That works then. What time should we go?
Me: I’ll come to your house at 2 and we can do hair and makeup together. When we’re ready we’ll leave around 5.

At a friend's wedding in December

Obviously most respondents didn't use quite that many forms of persuasion. And none of them mentioned doing Chenda's hair and makeup for her, though two females mentioned lending her a dress. (I've heard it's embarrassing to wear the same dress to more than two weddings, even in different social circles or years. Women are expected to expected to have professional-looking hair and makeup; fake hair is an option, and fake eyelashes are normal.) While several women mentioned the safety of riding together or spending the night, none of the men did. But almost everyone used the line about weddings being once in a lifetime, and most people also said that Neary was counting on Chenda to be there. 

Getting our hair done for a Khmer photo shoot in 2015

It was my impression that Cambodians invited almost everyone they know to a wedding, and so attendance wasn't that big of a deal. For example, I was once invited to the wedding of a guard at Logos whose name I didn't even recognize. We'd never said a word to each other, but he invited all 50+ staff members. I knew in at least some situations Cambodians felt obligated to go, even when they weren't close. I've heard them complain about all the money they have to spend when invited to wedding after wedding. And I knew you were at least supposed to send cash if you couldn't make it. (No gift registry here - every invitation comes with a small envelope that you fill and bring with you, often putting it into a big cardboard heart. A relative records all the gift amounts.) 

But to my surprise, everyone assumed that Neary was a close friend, or at least spoke as if she were. They felt she'd been intentional about inviting those that were dearest to her, even though she and her family would likely distribute 3-400 invitations to relatives, co-workers, neighbors, and classmates. Still, a couple people told me, "For a funeral, anyone can come. For a wedding, the couple carefully considers the guest list." Since there are no RSVP's, the couple pays for all the guests' food and drink whether or not that many guests come. It brings shame to them and their families if a lot of tables remain empty. On the other hand, I learned that if you get only a verbal invite and not a fancy envelope, you shouldn't feel obligated to go or pay. It can even be an insult, implying that the host doesn't think you can afford to cover your dinner. 

I started asking later respondents, "Would you say these things in real life? Or are you just using all these arguments because I told you to persuade Chenda?" They all answered, "Yes, we've really said or heard these arguments." One even told me, "A wedding is the most important day of a person's life. Until you get married, Khmer culture doesn't really value you." That was revealing. 

This assignment also highlighted the importance of reciprocity in Khmer culture. Why does the family keep track of all the gifts given? It's not to write thank-you notes. Later on, the couple is obligated to give at least that much when you invite them to a wedding for yourself or your child. Your attendance and contribution is quite literally an investment into your friendship, one that can't be replaced by quality time or homemade food. That's why, even though money is a constant concern for many Cambodians, they'll shell out big bucks, rearrange plans, and trek across the country to show up and look the part at weddings - not just of their very best friends, but of quite a few people in their social circle. 

That's not a natural way for me to see it. My default is to view fake eyelashes as a frivolous nuisance, not a symbol of my undying loyalty to the bride, groom, and their families. But even though I wish there were less financial pressure on my Khmer friends - especially females - shifting perspectives helps me appreciate the "why" behind their efforts. They're prioritizing relationships and community. After all, you only marry once.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Confession of an obsession: Andrew Peterson and the Wingfeather Saga

As undergrads at Penn State, a roommate and I had briefly overlapping crushes on the same guy. He was into a little-known Christian folk singer named Andrew Peterson, and therefore so were we. Andrew's voice isn't showy, but his lyrics left us awestruck:

I can see in the strip malls and the phone calls
The flaming swords of Eden
In the fast cash and the news flash and the horn blasts of war... 
We ache for what is lost 

Other songs were playful, like this one narrated by a penny:

I'd give you all of me to know what you were thinking
And if I had one wish I'd wish I wasn't sinking here
Drowning in this well, oh can't you tell?
("Loose Change")

Over a decade later, my friend and I have long since gotten over him... Mr. Penn State, that is. With Andrew, by contrast, I'm as smitten as ever. Perhaps even more, now that I've seen the power of his pen extend beyond music and into literature, and even back again.* I've turned to his music to help me grieve with a little girl and climb out of negativity. He has an incredible knack for combining personal anecdotes with universal themes. I've raved about him to dozens of friends, but never paid full homage to him on this blog until now.

About four years ago, I got wind that he'd written a fantasy called the Wingfeather Saga, aiming for the "vastness of Lord of the Rings" with the "whimsy of the Princess Bride." Since his songs always tell stories, a novel series didn't seem as far-fetched as it might have. I requested what I thought was his trilogy for Christmas, and my parents promised to send it over to Cambodia with my colleague. Before the colleague returned, I visited a friend in China and spent Christmas day with a 10-year-old boy who had received the same three books that morning. "Hey, that's my Christmas present too!" I told him with glee. His mom thought I was joking. 

Once my copies arrived, I was eager to dive in. I really wanted to like them, but I tried not to get my hopes up too much. A good fantasy series is quite an accomplishment, and poorly executed attempts can be painful. What if it sacrifices art for preaching or Christian cheesiness? What if the storyline is predictable? What if it just kind of fizzles?

Unfortunately, between lesson planning and grading, my free time was pretty nonexistent that spring. So I urged one of my students, a compulsive fantasy reader, to take a look first. He soon reported back to me, approving but distressed. "Where's the fourth book?" 

"What fourth book? These three were sold as a package." 

"The third book ends in a cliffhanger! I checked online, and the fourth was just published. I need to know how it ends!" Oops.

We eventually got another book mule to bring it out to Cambodia, and by then I'd managed to start reading. I wasn't surprised that Book 1, On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, was whimsical and well-worded. But I was taken aback by how often I laughed out loud at it... especially the footnotes. What kind of youth fiction is chock-full of footnotes?! Peterson spent over a decade thinking up this story, so it's amazingly complex and rich with detail. The footnotes, along with the maps and appendices, round out the colorful land of Skree, where farmers protect their crops of totatoes from pesky thwaps, while children play zibzy and handyball.** But like the rest of their world, Aerwiar, Skree is suffering:

Oh, yes, the people of Skree were quite free, as long as they were in their homes by midnight. And as long as they bore no weapons, and they didn't complain when their fellow Skreeans were occasionally taken away across the sea, never to be seen again. But other than the cruel Fangs and the constant threat of death and torture, there wasn't much to fear in Skree.

Still, concerns lingered at the end of the book. Each episode in the Igiby family - Janner, Tink, and Leeli, along with their mom (Nia) and grandpa (Podo) - was cute but not always compelling. They seemed to stick out their tongues at danger, and then run back to safety. Could the series hold my attention through another thousand pages? 

Yes indeed! Book 1 ends with the Igibys fleeing their home to guard a precious secret from their oppressors (organized under "a nameless evil, an evil whose name was Gnag the Nameless"). As I continued the series, I realized how well Book 1 lays the foundation for the following books. Like Lord of the Rings, Narnia, and Harry Potter, the Wingfeather Saga has many classic traits of an epic (both war and journey), a discovery which delighted me as a Brit Lit teacher. 

The farther I ventured into the books, the more the tongue-in-cheek liveliness reminiscent of "Loose Change" gave way to the stirring depth of "The Far Country." The Igibys are swept into a flood of events that reveal truths - some lovely, some frightening - about themselves and their world. Darkness isn't just "out there" pursuing them; it's among them and even in them. Plot twists abound as good guys betray them and grief divides them and courage fails them and help arrives from entirely unexpected sources. Yet the central story only grows more cohesive and more gripping. 

The later books still have sprinklings of laughter, though far fewer footnotes. They have strong characters with physical disability, with mental illness, with addiction and shame. They contain powerful imagery of brokenness and redemption, the many who bear the cost of one's mistakes, the necessity of family, the beauty of doing the right thing when it hurts, the power of forgiveness and reconciliation. They're not overtly religious and have less allegory than Narnia. But there's a lot that rings true on a deeper level.

I've enjoyed reading reviews from fellow fans. At a friend's wedding, I nerded out with a whole cluster of fans. They deepened my appreciation for the books, particularly for several minor characters. Some readers call the series "this generation's Narnia;" others say that's a stretch. If you're a die-hard fan of Lewis and Tolkien and Rowling, you'll probably find ways that Peterson fails to measure up; the Wingfeather Saga is not without flaws. But it will draw you in if you let it. 

I've been itching to re-read the books since I arrived back in Cambodia, where they've been in the Logos library since I left in 2015. But to my disappointment - and delight - they've been checked out every time I've stopped by. Apparently I hooked enough people, who likewise spread the word, that the librarian says it's still a hot commodity. 

While waiting, I've had fun with updates on Andrew's Kickstarter project turning the series into an animated show. The 15-minute pilot was just released this week. Despite my bias that "the book's always better," I was impressed at the film's quality. It also managed to convey Peterson's warmth and quirkiness. I've shown it to ten kids, all of whom were hooked and barraging me with questions. The older ones were desperate afterward to read the books. 

Why do I care so much about a book series aimed at kids? Because stories matter. In an interview, Andrew cites the quote, "If you want people to know the truth, tell them. If you want people to love the truth, tell them a story." (source unknown) Like Andrew's music, the Wingfeather Saga has helped me celebrate how God takes broken and twisted things and makes them beautiful - not just in the world of Aerwiar or the land of Skree, but here in my own story. 

*See this song taken from Book 3, The Monster in the Hollows. Even more perfect because the singer, Peterson's daughter Skye, is the inspiration for Leeli, who sings this song in the book. 

**Sample footnote: "A delightful sport in which each team tries to get the ball into the goal without using their feet in any capacity, even to move." 

Monday, November 13, 2017

The fine art of correspondence

In my Khmer class this morning, we read a fake e-mail between strangers: a Cambodian guy writing to a foreign girl. It reads as follows:

Dear Julie,

Hello! I want to tell you a bit about myself. My name is Somet and I live in the city of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. What city and country do you live in? I work as a professor at Royal University of Phnom Penh and I'm getting my doctorate in sociology. What do you do for a living? And what have you studied? I'm not married and I also don't have a girlfriend. Do you have anyone? My appearance is as you can see in this e-mail. Based on the photo, how old do you think I am, and do you think I'm handsome? Sorry Julie! I'm just kidding. Don't take it the wrong way. But I hope you'll answer the questions I asked above. Julie! Can I ask you some personal questions? How many siblings do you have? Can we meet up in Siem Reap when you visit Cambodia next year?

Missing you and feeling happy,

It cracked us up. How did he find her e-mail? Can this Julie somehow read Khmer? Is Somet even sure that she's coming to his country? It was definitely livelier than the "pen pal" e-mails I always find in high school language textbooks.

I asked the teacher, "How would you feel if you received a message like this?" Her reply? "Oh, it's common. Male Cambodian strangers often write on Facebook, telling me and my friends that we're beautiful and asking if we have a boyfriend." Hmm. That hasn't been my experience, and I'm really OK with that.

Our homework was to write Julie's reply to Somet. I did my best to answer his questions and use some recent vocab (bolded) but I couldn't resist the urge to create a plot twist, loosely inspired by James Veitch

Dear Somet,

Hello! I was very happy to read your e-mail. I think that you are handsome and around age 25. As for me, I'm 45. My profile picture is old. I'm an only child and a widow with five children. The police in America believe that I killed my husband last year. Ever since then, I've been in hiding in various countries. I heard that Cambodia is not very strict with foreign criminals. Would you like to marry me and live in a remote village, far from the police? I hope you'll agree. I probably won't kill you like my first husband. Sorry Somet! I'm just kidding. Don't take it the wrong way. Please send me $6000 so I can buy plane tickets for all six of us to meet you in Siem Reap next year. Thanks!

Missing you and feeling happy,

I'm not sure my teacher will appreciate it (they say humor is the hardest thing to translate) but it certainly improved my motivation in writing.
(Update: She got a good laugh out of it. She enjoyed my classmates' responses too!)

The ironic thing is that this afternoon, unaware of this assignment, my tutor asked me about a Facebook message she'd received. "It's from an American guy that I don't know. He says I'm beautiful and he's in love with me. What should I tell him?" The message (in English) was very gushy and very general. I was pretty sure the next message would say, "Can you please send me money?" I advised her to ignore it: advice she'd also heard from her son and neighbor. (Though, come to think of it, maybe I should have asked if she'd like to reuse my reply?) 

Oh, social media. Making the world smaller - by enabling people to flirt, stalk, and bilk across international borders.